In 1931, Gandhi coined the term ‘harijan’ to be used for the ‘untouchable’ community which was popularised during All India Harijan Tour. According to him, the usage of harijan would spare people of using any reproachable term for the lower caste communities.
But his coinage just remained a part of a politically driven campaign to mobilise masses against colonial powers. A term which came to be seen, euphemising the social discrimination in present days.
On November 7, 1933, Gandhi started his historic All India Harijan Tour from Wardha and ended it in Varanasi on August 2, 1934.
During this, around 600 temples were thrown open to the lower caste communities. The Harijan Sevak Sangh, founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1932, established a number of primary schools throughout the country where harijan children were ‘groomed for entry’ into regular institutions.
On January 27, 1935, Gandhi urged the removal of untouchability by legislative measures and when this finally happened in 1948 through the adoption of Article 17, chants of “Gandhi Ji Ki Jai!” (Victory to Gandhiji) reverberated the Assembly Hall.
But then, why despite the tooth and nail efforts of Gandhi in the eradication of untouchability, the bench consisting of Justices RK Agrawal and Ashok Bhushan of Supreme Court of India in March 2017 say that the use of the word harijan is offensive?
The term plunged into controversy decades before people became aware of its literal meaning – children of the devadasis – and the reason lied in the double role which Gandhi wanted to play – of a Mahatma and a politician.
Gandhi had a political reason for tackling the question of untouchability. He didn’t want India to fall prey to the British policy of divide and rule, which they had already shown through the Census of 1910, in which Hindus were divided into three separate categories, (i) Hindus, (ii) Animists and Tribal, and (iii) the Depressed Classes or Untouchables.
And by calling the ‘removal of untouchability’ the third pillar of swaraj or self-rule (Gandhi,1958: Vol 35, p 523), he himself proved his intentions to use it as a means to achieve political independence from colonial powers. But in this discourse, he definitely proved to be a nationalist, if not the harbinger of social change.
Although he criticised untouchability on the political ground, in a way, he was right that its continued existence hindered national unity and harmed the cause of Indian independence. Maybe this is the reason why Gandhi could become only the Father of the Nation and not that that of the ‘untouchables.’
And the stories from present-day India – such as more than 1 lakh students in Kerala leaving the religion/caste columns blank on the application form, the Minister of State of Social Welfare and SC/ST department Gulab Devi using the word harijan for Dalits and being asked to leave the stage, Delhi’s Dalit areas shunning the harijan tag, these give quite a vivid picture that the term harijan is more abstract and can’t be relied upon to reform the society.
People don’t like or prefer to be tagged under the term harijan or even any other. Of course, there are some names which distinguish communities, no matter how great the inventor of the term is.